The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

Arctic Seed Vault inaugurated

The so-called 'doomsday' seed vault opens in Norway
The so-called 'doomsday' seed vault opens in Norway
credit: Mari Tefre GCDT

One of the world's largest repositories of food crop seeds was inaugurated last month - on a remote island in the Arctic Circle. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in the town of Longyearbyen, in northern Norway, is buried 130m deep in a snow-covered mountain. The vault took its initial shipment of 100 million seed samples - around ten tonnes - from gene banks in over 100 countries, at the end of February. The so-called "doomsday" vault is intended to help protect global seed diversity.

The store has can hold around 2 billion seeds, with the vault surrounded by permafrost to keep samples cool even in the event of a power cut. In the worst-case scenario of extreme global warming, the storage rooms will remain naturally frozen for up to 200 years.

Cary Fowler, of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, said: "Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, and water and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population."

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Venezuela targets food smugglers

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, has lifted domestic price controls on many food products in an attempt to combat smuggling into neighbouring Colombia and so ease domestic food shortages. In the last two weeks of January alone, the military seized more than 13,000 tonnes of food believed to be destined for foreign markets, and the transport of food products to border states is now being tightly regulated.

Prices of around 400 products have been fixed below the market rate of 2003 to protect the economy from the effects of global food price hikes, but these have meant lower profit margins for farmers. The number of price-controlled products has now been reduced to 20. In 2007, Venezuela suffered severe shortages of basic foodstuffs including milk, rice, pasta, maize and sorghum as many traders sought higher prices in freer markets in neighbouring countries.

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EU reconsiders biofuel targets...

The EU admits the move to embrace biofuels was hasty
The EU admits the move to embrace biofuels was hasty
credit: FAO/24110/J Spaull

The European Union (EU) is to review its biofuel policy after admitting it failed to anticipate environmental and social problems associated with increased demand for fuel crops. Critics have argued that the bloc's target of a 10 per cent biofuel mix for road transport by 2020 does not take into account the impact on rainforest destruction and global food prices. There is also mounting scientific evidence that some biofuels have a negligible impact on CO2 levels.

The target was set at a time when biofuel was seen as the perfect solution to rising greenhouse gas emissions, as fuel crops would absorb atmospheric CO2 as they grew. But recent price hikes in staple grains, as more farmers switch to growing fuel rather than food, have had worldwide repercussions. Speaking to the BBC, EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "We have seen that the environmental problems caused by biofuel and also the social problems are bigger that we thought they were. So we have to move very carefully." With a strong agricultural lobby, the EU is likely only to revise, rather than abandon its biofuel target.

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...While 'greener' fuels offer hope

Algae could play an important role in the future production of biofuel, according to scientists. The light-loving organisms are highly efficient at converting solar energy into biomass and can double in size in a day. Brewing cellulose from algae to produce ethanol is one promising example of the emerging "second generation" of biofuels - those with few of the social and environmental drawbacks of first-generation fuels derived from food crops. Algae can also grow in salty water, so they do not compete for water with arable crops, and can grow well in sewage which they can purify while producing fuel. Several energy companies are now investigating the fuel-producing potential of algae.

Termites could soon also join the march to the biofuels of the future; Brazil is to invest part of its recent US$5bn commitment to biotechnology into using the tiny detrivores to convert cellulose in wood waste into sugars.

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Surging soybean prices

Soybeans are a staple food in many parts of the world
Soybeans are a staple food in many parts of the world
credit: FAO/21652/J Spaull

Soybeans could soon become unaffordable for the poor in Asia if price rises continue. Over 10,000 Indonesians marched on the capital Jakarta in February in protest at the 125 per cent price hike in the previous 12 months. Soybeans account for nearly a quarter of all Indonesians' protein intake, excluding rice.

The price rises have been partly due to soybean growers in the USA and Asia switching to maize and palm oil production to supply the biofuel industry, while producers in Latin America have suffered poor harvests. The hikes have also been blamed on surging demand for soybeans in China, the world's largest importer, where it is a popular livestock feed in a country with a rapidly growing preference for meat.

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AGRA's US$180m commitment to soil

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has announced a $180m programme to improve soil fertility. The organisation's Soil Health Program will work with over 4 million farmers to rehabilitate over 6 million ha of degraded land in Africa. It is hoped the initiative will help boost crop yields and raise the incomes of smallscale farmers.

AGRA president, Dr Namanga Ngongi, said: "Currently farm yield in Africa is one-quarter of the global average. We know that the use of high quality seeds, combined with the rejuvenation of African soils, can begin to turn around this dismal situation."

Central to the initiative is Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM), which involves assessments of local soil and water resources, to create sustainable approaches to soil rehabilitation. Further measures aim to improve training of farmers, scientists, students and workers. The majority of the funding will come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Southern Africa floods - update

Floods continue to cause damage to crops and homes in southern Africa
Floods continue to cause damage to crops and homes in southern Africa
credit: ECHO

Southern Africa is bracing itself for more torrential downpours and flooding as the rainy season reaches its mid-point. At least 1 million people in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe are at risk as water levels in the Zambezi River basin continue to rise.

The floods have already destroyed the crops and homes of nearly 450,000 people in the four countries, leaching vital soil nutrients and providing breeding grounds for vectors carrying diseases such as Rift Valley Fever.

When Cyclone Ivan struck Madagascar in mid-February, it brought torrential rain and winds over 125mph to this island nation. Food supplies have been hit after an estimated 15,000 ha of rice fields were flooded in the country's Alaotro Mangoro region.

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Deforestation soars in Brazil

Brazil has suffered a surge in deforestation despite recent claims that initiatives to tackle the problem had been successful. An estimated 35000 sq km of Amazon rainforest were lost over the last few months of 2007, with the Brazilian government admitting that the situation may be much worse than so far reported.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recently held an emergency meeting to discuss new measures to address the issue. It follows the government's efforts to control illegal logging and improve regulation of land ownership to reduce forest destruction.

Conservation groups say increased illegal cattle ranching and soybean production for international export, and production of sugarcane for bioethanol have contributed to the rise. In December 2007, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) published findings that suggest that without effective intervention, the forest could completely disappear by 2030.

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Worst winter in decades devastates Afghan livestock

FAO says vulnerable families need urgent help
FAO says vulnerable families need urgent help
credit: FAO

Afghanistan's livestock sector has been badly hit by the harshest winter weather in 30 years. Extreme cold has killed over 300,000 animals since December 2007 and FAO has distributed 80 tonnes of feed and feed concentrate to the worst-affected provinces of Herat and Bamyan. Winter crops have also been damaged and high prices of fuel, vegetable oil and cereals have compounded the distress, leaving many families with severely restricted access to food.

The UN agency requires an additional 1500 tonnes of feed and vaccines, multivitamins and anti-parasitic treatment for livestock of 50,000 vulnerable families, in an emergency response package costing around US$2 million.

"The situation is very worrying," said Samuel Kugbei, acting FAO representative in Afghanistan. "Livestock are a lifeline for many of the affected households, whose food situation is already precarious. Without assistance, they risk even greater food insecurity."

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Temporary ban on Brazilian beef exports to the EU

Brazil has described an EU ban on the country's beef exports as "unjustifiable and arbitrary". The ban came into effect on January 31st following concerns that the Brazilian government is not doing enough to combat Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The European Commission stated that 2500 Brazilian beef farms did not meet current inspection criteria, leaving around 300 eligible as exporters. EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said the EU could not accept claims that the vast number of Brazilian farms are disease-free.

The decision is not expected to have a significant impact on Brazil's beef market because meat from cattle slaughtered before the ban will continue arriving in the EU until mid-March. However, if Brazil cannot prove that its standards match EU requirements, the next step could be an outright ban on all Brazilian beef exports to the EU.

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New stress-tolerant rice promised

Africa needs new rice varieties to meet growing demand for the staple grain
Africa needs new rice varieties to meet growing demand for the staple grain
credit: Africa Rice Center (WARDA)

An initiative to upscale production of high-yielding rice varieties, resistant to climatic constraints such as drought, soil salinity and iron toxicity, has been launched in Benin. These varieties have an intrinsic tolerance to abiotic (non-living) restraints in farmers' fields, and a yield advantage of at least one tonne per hectare over current rice varieties, according to scientists at the Africa Rice Center (WARDA).

The varieties were developed using a technique called marker-assisted back-crossing, where the DNA signatures of genes controlling stress tolerance were used to guide the development of new stress-tolerant varieties. The approach combined biotechnological, conventional and traditional science but excluded the use of genetic modification. The new varieties will help farmers in Africa, who do not have the resources to combat environmental constraints through crop management practices such as irrigation, soil fertility amendment and drainage.

Some of the new varieties have already been released in Burkina Faso and Mali, and the project will increase access to the improved seeds for farmers in many other African countries. Partnerships with community-based organisations, NGOs and national seed programmes will form an important part of the strategy. The project has been launched in response to an urgent need to boost domestic rice production in Africa to meet rapidly increasing demand.

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New quinoa processing machine - Bolivia

An experimental quinoa mill could reduce the amount of time producers in Bolivia spend processing this staple grain very significantly. The popularity of the traditionally-grown and highly nutritious cereal has been falling in recent years in favour of less-nutritious alternatives such as rice and pasta, which are easier to prepare. In tests, a simple quinoa mill prototype was found to cut the time taken to remove the toxic saponin coating from 12kg of quinoa grain from six hours to just seven minutes. Costing around US$600-800, the mill will be unaffordable to many Bolivian families, but community-owned machines could help families share the cost.

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March 2008
WRENmedia www.wrenmedia.co.uk